The Deepest Mourning Ever Worn; and the Richest: 1859

Mourning bonnet - Made from black ottoman silk in alternating bands with black crepe and part-lined with black sateen. It is constructed over stiffened black muslin and trimmed with a band of pleated black crepe overthe top and tied at the centre and edged with ruched Ottoman. The ties are missing. (female)

Mourning bonnet – Made from black ottoman silk in alternating bands with black crepe and part-lined with black sateen. It is constructed over stiffened black muslin and trimmed with a band of pleated black crepe overthe top and tied at the centre and edged with ruched Ottoman. The ties are missing. (female)

This fictional, but all-too-plausible episode opens when Mrs. Bazalgette believes that her niece, Lucy Fountain, has drowned at sea:

“I need not tell you,” said Mrs. Bazalgette [to the dress-maker], “why I sent for you: you know the sad bereavement that has fallen on me, but you can not know all I have lost in her. Nobody can tell what she was to all of us, but most of all to me. I was her darling, and she was mine.” Here tears choked Mrs. Bazalgette’s words for a while. Recovering herself, she paid a tribute to the character of the deceased. “It was a soul without one grain of selfishness: all her thoughts were for others, not one for herself. She loved us all: indeed, she loved some that were hardly worthy of so pure a creature’s love: but the reason was, she had no eye for the faults of her friends; she pictured them like herself, and loved her own sweet image in them. And such a temper! and so free from guile. I may truly say her mind was as lovely as her person.”

“She was, indeed, a sweet young lady,” sighed the woman.

“She was an angel, Baldwin—an angel sent to bear us company a little while, and now she is a saint in heaven.”

“Ah! ma’am, the best goes first, that is an old saying.”

“So I have heard; but my niece was as healthy as she was lovely and good. Every thing promised long life. I hoped she would have closed my eyes. In the bloom of health one day, and the next lying cold, stark, and drenched!! Oh, how terrible! Oh, my poor Lucy! oh! oh! oh!”

“In the midst of life we are in death, ma’am; I am sure it is a warning to me, ma’am, as well as to my betters.”

“It is indeed, Baldwin, a warning to all of us who have lived too much for vanities, to think of this sweet flower, snatched in a moment from our bosoms and from the world; we ought to think of it on our knees, and remember our own latter end. That last skirt you sent me was rather scrimped, my poor Baldwin.”

“Was it, ma’am?”

“Oh, it does not matter: I shall never wear it now; and, under such a blow as this, I am in no humor to find fault. Indeed, with my grief I neglect my household and my very children. I forget every thing; what did I send for you for?” and she looked with lack-lustre eyes full in Mrs. Baldwin’s face.

“Jane did not say, ma’am, but I am at your orders.”

“Oh, of course; I am distracted. It was to pay the last tribute of respect to her dear memory. Ah! Baldwin, often and often the black dress is all, but here the heart mourns beyond the power of grief to express by any outward trappings. No matter; the world, the shallow world, respects these signs of woe, and let mine be the deepest mourning ever worn, and the richest. And out of that mourning I shall never go while I live.”

“No, ma’am,” said Baldwin, soothingly.

“Do you doubt me?” asked the lady, with a touch of sharpness that did not seem called for by Baldwin’s humble acquiescence.

“Oh no, ma’am; it is a very natural thought under the present affliction, and most becoming the sad occasion. Well, ma’am, the deepest mourning, if you please, I should say cashmere and crape.”

“Yes, that would be deep. Oh, Baldwin, it is her violent death kills me. Well?”

“Cashmere and crape, ma’am, and with nothing white about the neck and arms.”

“Yes; oh yes; but will not that be rather unbecoming?”

“Well, ma’am—” and Baldwin hesitated.

“I hardly see how I could wear that, it makes one look so old. Now don’t you think black glacé silk, and trimmed with love-ribbon, black of course, but scalloped—”

“That would be very rich indeed, ma’am, and very becoming to you; but being so near and dear, it would not be so deep as you are desirous of.”

“Why, Baldwin, you don’t attend to what I say; I told you I was never going out of mourning again, so what is the use of your proposing any thing to me that I can’t wear all my life? Now tell me, can I always wear cashmere and crape?”

“Oh no, ma’am, that is out of the question; and if it is for a permanency, I don’t see how we could improve on glacé silk, with crape, and love ribbons. Would you like the body trimmed with jet, ma’am?”

“Oh, don’t ask me; I don’t know. If my darling had only died comfortably in her bed, then we could have laid out her sweet remains, and dressed them for her virgin tomb.”

“It would have been a satisfaction, ma’am.”

“A sad one, at the best; but now the very earth, perhaps, will never receive her. Oh yes, any thing you like—the body trimmed with jet, if you wish it, and let me see, a gauze bodice, goffered, fastened to the throat. That is all, I think; the sleeves confined at the wrist just enough not to expose the arm, and yet look light—you understand.”

Mourning gown trimmed with jet, c. 1883

Mourning gown trimmed with jet, c. 1883

“Yes, ma’am.”

“She kissed me just before she went on that fatal excursion, Baldwin; she will never kiss me again—oh! oh! You must call on Dejazet for me, and bespeak me a bonnet to match; it is not to be supposed I can run about after her trumpery at such a time; besides, it is not usual.”

“Indeed, ma’am, you are in no state for it; I will undertake any purchases you may require.”

“Thank you, my good Baldwin; you are a good, kind, feeling, useful soul. Oh, Baldwin, if it had pleased Heaven to take her by disease, it would have been bad enough to lose her; but to be drowned! her clothes all wetted through and through; her poor hair drenched too; and then the water is so cold at this time of year— oh! oh! Send me a cross of jet, and jet beads, with the dress, and a jet brooch, and a set of jet buttons, in case—besides—oh! oh! oh !—I expect every moment to see her carried home, all pale and wetted by the nasty sea—oh! oh! — and an evening dress of the same, the newest fashion. I leave it to you; don’t ask me any questions about it, for I can’t and won’t go into that. I can try it on when it is made—oh! oh! oh!—it does not do to love any creature as I loved my poor lost Lucy—and a black fan—oh! oh! —and a dozen pair of black kid gloves—oh!— and a mourning-ring and—”

“Stop, Aunt, or your love for me will be your ruin!” said Lucy, coldly, and stood suddenly before the pair, looking rather cynical.

“What, Lucy! alive! No, her ghost—ah! ah!”

“Be calm, aunt; I am alive and well. Now, don’t be childish, dear; I have been in danger, but here I am.”

Mrs. Bazalgette and Mrs. Baldwin flew together, and trembled in one another’s arms. Lucy tried to soothe them, but at last could not help laughing at them. This brought Baldwin to her senses quicker than any thing; but Mrs. Bazalgette, who, like many false women, was hysterical, went off into spasms—genuine ones. They gave her salts—in vain. Slapped her hands—in vain.

Then Lucy cried to Baldwin, “Quick! the tumbler; I must sprinkle her face and bosom.”

“Oh, don’t spoil my lilac gown!” gasped the sufferer, and with a mighty effort she came to. She would have come back from the edge of the grave to shield silk from water. Finally she wreathed her arms round Lucy, and kissed her so tenderly, warmly, and sobbingly, that Lucy got over the shock of her shallowness, and they kissed and cried together most joyously, while Baldwin, after a heroic attempt at jubilation, retired from the room with a face as long as your arm. À bas les revenants!! She went to the housekeeper’s room. The housekeeper persuaded her to stay and take a bit of dinner, and soon after dinner she was sent for to Mrs. Bazalgette’s room.

Lucy met her coming out of it. “I fear I came mal apropos, Mrs. Baldwin; if I had thought of it, I would have waited till you had secured that munificent order.”

“I am much obliged to you, miss, I am sure; but you were always a considerate young lady. You’ll be glad to learn, miss, it makes no difference; I have got the order; it is all right.”

“That is fortunate,” replied Lucy, kindly, “otherwise I should have been tempted to commit an extravagance with you myself. Well, and what is my aunt’s new dress to be now?”

“Oh, the same, miss.”

”The same? why, she is not going into mourning on my return? ha! ha!”

“La bless you, miss, mourning? you can’t call that mourning: glacé silk, and love-ribbons scalloped out, and cetera. Of course it was not my business to tell her so; but I could not help thinking to myself, if that is the way my folk are going to mourn for me, they may just let it alone. However, that is all over now; and your aunt sent for me, and says she, ‘Black becomes me; you will make the dresses all the same.'” Baldwin retired radiant.

Lucy put her hand to her bosom. “Make the dresses all the same—all the same whether I am alive or dead. No, I will not cry; no, I will not. Who is worth a tear? what is worth a tear? All the same. It is not to be forgotten—nor forgiven.”

“Love me Little, Love me Long,” Stories, Volume 2, Charles Reade, 1859

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The vagaries of hypocritical mourning have long formed a subject for satire. Glacé silk, with its glossy finish, would have been unthinkable for deep mourning. Jet trimmings were equally inadmissable in first mourning, as was love-ribbon, a gauze ribbon with a satin stripe. Textiles with dull finishes were theoretically meant to symbolise that the “light had gone out” of one’s life, although one suspects that the discomfort of crape may have been an echo of the penitential sack-cloth and ashes which society was so fond of inflicting upon widows. 

For more on the fads and fancies of Victorian mourning see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



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